The introduction of the exciting new designs of The Mahjong Line continues an almost 170-year tradition of evolution in mahjong, the most popular pastime in the world. Mahjong has long been played with different rules and tile iconography, from culture to culture, country to country, region to region, even table to table. Mahjong has always been a highly visual game with tile designs an important part of its appeal. Images on pieces differ from set to set, and this has been the case since the true beginnings of the game in the mid 1800s. From the time the game was first exported from China, foreign manufacturers working in China in the 1920s began the first changes to tile imagery in the hopes of gaining a larger worldwide market while wanting to maintain the-then perceived exoticism of Chinese culture. The three early suits were inspired by Chinese money, but that connection is mostly forgotten today–only one suit has kept its original design.

Mahjong Tile Design with Peach as Dots and Buddha Hand as Bam

Peaches representing Dots and Buddha's hand (a citrus plant) as Bams, 1920's

The Early History of Tile Design

The suit we Americans call Dots is actually based on Chinese coins which had holes in the center. The round coin “disc” of the Dot design certainly remains today, but few know that perforated coins were its inspiration. The Bamboo suit, Bam, is based on “strings of coins,” or “strings of cash.” The Chinese carried the above-mentioned coins on strings threaded through their middles. Every so often, 100 coins or so, they’d tie a knot to visually indicate how much money was on the strings. Such strings of cash resembled bamboo shoots with bamboo’s regularly spaced nodes. It is believed that the exporters didn’t think any Americans or Europeans would care about strings of coins but would associate bamboo with China, thus that pictorial evolution. The last suit is Crak or Crack, (a shortened version of the word “character,” the U.S. term for all Chinese written words, and this term is what the word refers to throughout the article) with the red character at the bottom  representing “10,000”, in other words, a lot of money!

Names and meanings of tiles were changed too. North, East, South and West, important orientation points for the Chinese, were turned into “Winds.” Other tiles, with archery-related characters, were changed: marketers assumed foreigners didn’t care about that. They replaced the tile name with a different image of Chinese culture: Dragons. Many Dragon tiles maintained their original Chinese (archery-related) characters in the 20s and 30s, but by the 1940s, at least in the U.S., they evolved into the more figural Dragons we know today. 

The original Chinese game of mahjong, with its many layers of meaning, was deemed too complicated for non-Chinese players, so the hands, rules and scoring were simplified and changed by each exporting company, thus losing the beauty of the original version. (Most people don’t know the way the Chinese play today is not the way people did in the early 20th century–that version and the game itself were declared illegal during Mao’s regime. Only in the 1980s, after government officials made changes to the way mahjong was played and scored, was the game once again allowed.) Moreover,  original Chinese designs included visual puns and homophones, but manufacturers felt they weren’t understandable to outsiders, so many of these were dropped too.

 Mahjong Set Made in China With Fish As One Bam And other longevity symbols

Ebony and bone set with fish as One Bam and other longevity symbols for the rest of the Bams, 1920's, China

Artistic Liberties Taken in the 1920s

By the 1920s, workshops were cranking out sets—many in exquisite boxes— meant for export. More expert craftsmen created beautifully carved sets with strikingly different images, mostly intended for wealthy foreign purchasers.  Dots evolved into round objects, including peaches, and crabs. Bamboos now included longevity symbols plus shrimp, panthers, and fish, to name a few. All of these images had meaning in Chinese culture, and while foreigners snapped up these beautiful sets, players remained mostly in the dark about their imagery. It’s only now that the designs are being re-examined and treasured. 

Mahjong Tile Crab As A Dot

Bone and bamboo set with crabs representing Dots,1920's

Mahjong Tile Design with Crabs as Bams

Bone and bamboo set with shrimp representing Bams, 1920's

Mahjong Set Cranes as Dots

Cranes representing Dots, 1920's

Mahjong Around the World

As stated earlier, cultures around the world have made the game their own. The Japanese version, Riichi, doesn’t use Flowers. The Singapore version has their own special Flowers which give players extra points. In Vietnam more tiles are used, and Jokers with specific functions were added. In America there are two main approaches: Wright-Patterson’s style played by military families all throughout the world, and the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL) version. Wright-Patterson doesn’t include Jokers as part of their game, whereas the NMJL does. The NMJL changed the tile set and number of tiles for 30 years until finally coming up with the combination seen today, which includes eight wild Joker tiles. All this to say, the game has changed and evolved throughout time, depending on who’s playing. Many of us feel that is the main reason the game is so popular throughout the world: it becomes each culture’s game, incorporating many rituals, traditions and images important to that region. 

 Vintage Mahjong set baseball as dot and baseball diamond as white dragon

Homemade mahjong set with baseballs as Dots and what may be a baseball diamond as the White Dragon, 1940's

Sets of our New Century

Throughout the game’s history, we have seen that tile designs have been altered not only on sets produced by different companies, but also by individual people who wanted to create a keepsake for their own family. My friends and I love these tiles with different images that add another level of visual and mental challenge to the game. Not only do we have to figure out what’s what, but we have to then fit it into a pattern that we can possibly win with. (Mahjong is thought to be one of the best ways to exercise our brains, and having to interpret different images gives us even better mental workouts.) I’ve played with Americana sets, cartoon sets, abstract sets, Christmas sets, golf sets and of course traditional and vintage sets. Each and every one has given me and the other players pleasure. The Mahjong Line is carrying on the same tradition as other designers before them.  I’m happy the Mahjong Line brought back those forgotten visual pun homophones such as “Flour” for “Flower,” harkening back to the Chinese visual puns from the early days of the game. I know playing with their charming tiles will continue to add to the fun and mental workout of the game. The game of mahjong is a joyous pastime to players all over the world, and the evolving imagery on its tiles play a large part in that for its players.

-Gregg Swain

An author of two books Mah Jongg the Art of the Game and American Mah Jongg for EveryoneGregg frequently gives talks about the game, its history, and relevance to people all throughout the world. Much of her research of Mah Jongg images can be seen on her blog 

To learn more about the history of the game and to see fabulous sets, visit

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